What is Fonio? (Nutritional Benefits of the African Supergrain!)

Have you heard about the nutritional benefits of fonio?

Let’s assume, because you have just searched for and landed on a blog post about fonio and its benefits!

Also known as acha and iburura, fonio is a Western African ancient grain and one of the continent’s oldest cultivated cereals.

Yep, it may appear pretty new in the nutrition industry, but fonio has been around forever.

Fonio is a key part of cuisine in African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.

In fact, in episode #24 of the Planet Health podcast, myself and the Vegan Nigerian, Tomi Makanjuola, discuss the use of fonio in her home country.

In this article, I take a brief look at this intriguing African grain, which has earned the nickname ‘the Grain of Life’.

Move over quinoa, there’s a new supergrain in town…

What is fonio?

Fonio is a very tiny grain that is a member of the millet family. In its dry form, it resembles a very fine sand. I’d love to lie on a beach of fonio! 🏖️

There are a few varieties of fonio, although the one I am most familiar with and the most common in the UK is known as digitaria exilis.

This is a white grain grown in central Nigeria, as well as other areas of Western Africa. The other is a black fonio known as digitaria iburua, but this is only really found in Africa.

Fonio is such an African staple because it grows very well in drought conditions, without the need for fertilizers.

What are the health benefits of fonio?

While it’s been a staple in African cuisine for more than 5,000 years, fonio is only now beginning to enjoy its time in the spotlight in the UK and other countries.

Why? Because of the health benefits of course. People love a superfood, and fonio is undoubtedly a supergrain.

So, does it live up to its nickname, the Grain of Life?

Here are the nutrition facts at a glance, according to the USDA (per 45g serving, cooked):

  • Calories: 170
  • Protein: 2g
  • Carbohydrates: 39g
  • Fat: 0.5g
  • Fiber: 1g
  • Sugars: 0g
  • Sodium: 0mg

Firstly, for a grain, fonio is high in plant protein, including some amino acids (including methionine and cysteine) that aren’t found in many other grains.

It’s far from a primary protein source, but extra protein is always welcome when it comes to maintaining muscle mass and aiding weight maintenance.

Fonio is also bursting with micronutrients like iron (4% DV per serving), B vitamins (including riboflavin, thiamine and niacin), and calcium.

Meanwhile, fonio is also high in resistant starch. This is the starch that aids your digestion and keeps you regular, and has shown promise in managing and preventing prediabetes and type-2 diabetes.

This is because resistant starch slows the digestion and absorption of food, which naturally prevents a spike in blood sugar.

So, Grain of Life? It’s certainly up there!

Is fonio gluten free?

Yep.

Fonio is gluten free and safe for people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or those simply avoiding gluten.

What to do with fonio?

Fonio is a versatile little grain and can be enjoyed in several ways.

The best way to cook fonio is to steam it, like you would quinoa (two parts fonio, one part liquid). This prevents it from becoming too saturated and gloopy.

Note that fonio expands to around four times its dry size when cooked, so just half a cup of the grain can result in a big bowl of fluffy fonio!

When cooked, you can use it as a more nutritious alternative to rice, alongside curries and stews to boost your satisfaction and your health. When it has cooled down, you can also use it in buddha bowls.

Equally, you can also make fonio the main part of the dish, like a jollof fonio. You’ll want to Google some recipes because… well, I’m not a recipe guy.

You could also try using fonio to make a nutritious breakfast porridge, topped with fruit and nuts/nut butter.

Meanwhile, you can also bake fonio into bread and cakes along with other grains to boost the health profile.

Where to buy fonio?

In the UK, you can grab it from some supermarkets – I know Waitrose is one of those.

You can also find many brands of fonio sold in exotic food stores (most cities have these), as well as online on sites such as Amazon.

Fonio’s nutritional benefits and its versatility mean that it is one of those grains that is only going to grow in popularity as more people hear about it. Expect to see it more often.

Have you been inspired to try fonio? Let me know!

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